Notre Dame doesn’t have any margin for error. A loss at Clemson brimming with errors made that fact abundantly clear.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for Notre Dame’s two-point loss at Death Valley. Offense, defense, special teams, coaching — nobody’s absolved when it comes to determining why the Irish fell behind early and saw their furious fourth-quarter comeback fall short.
Notre Dame has a 24-hour rule, where by the Monday after a game, any emotion from a win or a loss is supposed to left behind to create a blank slate for the upcoming week. But this one is different. It needs to linger a bit.
“I’ll remember this for the rest of my life,” linebacker and captain Joe Schmidt said. “I’ll never forget this moment.
“We have to look forward. We have to move on to the next game. Obviously we have to look back at this game and learn from it. But there isn’t a guy in there with a smile on his face, and we’re not gonna smile for the next week."
On one hand, the mistakes Notre Dame made at Clemson were debilitating. The six fumbles (three lost), the dropped passes, the suboptimal run blocking, the slow defensive start, the shanked first-quarter punt, the peculiar decision to go for two early in the fourth quarter and failure to convert the attempt — those are why Notre Dame needed two points after a touchdown with seven seconds left just to send the game into overtime.
None of those errors are more important than another. Had Notre Dame’s offensive line blocked better for C.J. Prosise, it would’ve had a better chance of overcoming those fumble issues. Had Notre Dame’s receivers caught the ball more consistently, Kelly may not have considered going for two with 14 minutes left in the game (and Corey Robinson perhaps wouldn’t have let DeShone Kizer’s pass slip through his hands).
But if we’re searching for positives, the reasons for Notre Dame’s loss at Clemson aren’t necessarily indicative of a program-wide problem, at least not yet. Notre Dame appears to have the right quarterback — Kizer certainly played well enough to win — unlike in 2011, 2013 and to an extent, 2014. This isn’t like last year’s four-game losing streak, in which a thin depth chart was exposed by a few key injuries. To wit: A few days before Notre Dame was blown out by USC, Kelly said Chase Hounshell wasn’t big enough to play inside on the defensive line. Injuries to Jay Hayes and Jacob Matuska (who’ve combined to play one game this year) forced Hounshell, who converted to tight end after the season, into playing defensive tackle in Los Angeles.
If there’s any long-lasting concern about the players, it’s that Notre Dame’s offensive line underperformed against the best defensive front it’s faced, though one bad game doesn’t undo all the success this unit has had under Harry Hiestand.
Notre Dame, too, won’t face the same combination of a raucous crowd and brutal weather as it did on Saturday. Maybe it’ll rain again, or it’ll snow, but Notre Dame’s three remaining true road games are at Temple, Pitt and Stanford — environments that won’t come close to the hostility of Death Valley.
[RELATED: Notre Dame knows what went wrong at Clemson]
That doesn’t mean things get easier from here, not with a 4-0 Navy team coming to South Bend on Saturday that’s played the Irish awfully close the last two years. A week after that, a supremely athletic, top-20 USC side rolls in for a night game. Temple is undefeated, while Pitt and Boston College will present difficult defensive challenges. Stanford has shown its season-opening loss to Northwestern to be an outlier.
And this doesn’t mean Notre Dame’s problems will necessarily go away when it plays 1) in dry conditions and 2) teams not named Clemson. But the message is clear: These kind of mistakes can’t return on Saturdays.
Because if they do, Notre Dame’s deepest, most talented team in years will fall short in a year that looked to be it’s best chance of making the College Football Playoff.
“They can't let an opportunity like this ever slip through their hands again,” Kelly said. “They're going to have other opportunities like this and they're going to happen every Saturday now because you can't lose another game. You're on the clock now. Every single weekend you're playing elimination football.”